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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 21

Tora is a long way from Tremaine. Despite the distance we ran into only one enemy strike force.

For some unknown reason the beetles completely ignored us when we crossed the barrier. Either they were not expecting a federation ship out here in the void or they were inattentive. The three enemy ships were dispersed over a physically wide area.

“Enemy ships at the limit of our detection gear,” I shouted as soon as we were back in normal space.

“How many?” the captain asked, glaring at me.

“Three of them, I believe. The motion detectors give a confused reading. Nothing is registering on the mass-proximity units.”

Captain Litvak came to my station to study the instruments.

“They appear to be drifting out there,” I said, studying the read­outs. “We are approaching them but they do not appear to be aware of us.”

The captain grunted something and then returned to his chair. “Keep me informed if there is any change,” he said. “Navigator, plot our next jump. And make it snappy.”

Petra Baird looked up from her computer, shrugged and then continued with her work. Even Commander Yonge frowned when he heard the captain’s gruff outburst. While we had been approaching the Coleopteron ships for some time now, we had not come much closer to them.

“Enemy ships have a negative velocity relative to us,” I now informed the captain.

He looked up at me. “Are you sure, Kester?” he asked, his voice still gruff.

“Yes, Sir, absolutely.” Captain Litvak nodded, as if he knew what to expect next.

“Jump plotted and laid in, Captain,” Petra Baird finally said.

The helmsman had his hand close to the jump button while looking expectantly at Litvak.

“What are our adversaries doing now, Mr. Kester?” the captain asked.

“They are still drifting there. At present there are only three vessels out there.” I studied my instruments for a minute. It now appeared that the enemy ships were pulling closer together. Suddenly the needle on the mass-proximity unit fluttered.

“A fourth enemy vessel has just taken a reading,” I shouted.

“Helmsman, jump,” Captain Litvak roared.

At precisely the instant we were leaving normal space a Coleopteron warship broke through the barrier a short distance to our starboard side.

“Just as I figured,” the captain mused, more to himself than to us. “Those three ships out there knew they were at the limit of our instru­ments while the fourth one was beyond our range. That was why they tried to give us the illusion they were not aware of us. It happened once before when I was Number One on Captain Warinski’s ship.” He rose. “Standard routine,” he said in a loud voice and left the bridge.

When you are on patrol you soon lose your sense of time. There is no change from day to night. Yo u also have no change from routine. Yo u are on duty all the time. In theory you are on duty for four hours and off duty for eight hours, except when there is an emergency or we are at a code three alert. Then you are on duty until the emergency is over. In practice, however, you train much of the time.

On our ship we were usually in normal space for several hours on a code three alert. Then we jumped, most of the time for about seven hours. I don’t profess to know why Captain Litvak preferred a seven hour jump. Our ship could jump for a maximum of ten hours at a time, but that stretched its capability to the limit. On most ships the captains jump­ed for eight hours while going from Inverness to their respective patrol position and returning to Inverness. While on patrol all ships stayed mostly in normal space, and the jumps were only for short distances.

Some of our ships have a translator aboard which translates Coleopteron radio messages for us. Some also have probability comput­ers which tell the captain the likelihood of meeting an enemy strike force at the end of a particular jump. Our ship had neither a translator nor a probability computer. It was the aim of the High Command that every ship would eventually be equipped with these aids.

And some captains have a sixth sense which unfailingly protects them. Captain George Warinski, our most successful fleet officer, has this gift in large measure.

Sometimes our captain, Roy Litvak, is in a jovial mood. It does not happen often, but there are occasions. At those times he tells us anecdotes and stories from the days before the war. They are highly interesting. They also give me additional background information. Particularly his stories about the early weeks and months of the war have a large follow­ing and the wardroom is crowded.

An ASV vessel is a small ship as ships go. We have a crew of only thirty-eight. An ASV vessel is like a destroyer, the largest fighting ship we have which can bridge interstellar distances. Of course we also have freighters and passenger ships which are much larger. But their speed is only a fraction of that of an ASV vessel. ASV stands for Armed Survey Vessel, I believe.

Captain Litvak had been first officer on Captain Warinski’s ship for a while before he was promoted and got his own command. He was present when the first act of war occurred in the current conflict. And it was at Tora Tw o where we first made contact with the Coleoptera or beetles as they are popularly known.

Now the sun of Tora Two was centered on our forward screen. One week on patrol in the Tora system and then back to Inverness for refitting and a rest. Even I was beginning to look forward to it. And there was Petra Baird. The better I got to know her the more attractive she became. By the end of this voyage both she and I would have accumulated ten days of furlough. She was keen to spend that time with me in the wilder­ness of Inverness. And I also looked forward to it with a good deal of anticipation as we had been aboard our ship, ASV 659, for almost three months now.

While in the beginning I had tried to distance myself from Petra Baird my resolve had collapsed after only a few days. It was as if some magic drew us both together.

At that time Petra had played hard to get while at the same time teasing me and flirting with me. Then I had had the accident before reaching Inverness and that brought us much closer to each other. And after I had returned from dropping off the ranger contingent on Outpost Twelve - or Tremaine as everybody now called it - our relationship had entered an entirely new phase. No longer were we merely shipmates or friends. Ever so subtly her feelings for me had turned into love and to my very considerable surprise I also found that I had fallen in love with her.

Since Louise Yasuda had remained on Tremaine Bill Johnson had become somewhat moody. Occasionally he sought me out and talked incessantly about Louise and what they would do once they were both back on Inverness. At other times he would be withdrawn and avoided contact with me altogether.

Most of the time we trained for every conceivable emergency. Often we were so beat at the conclusion of an exercise that we went to our cabins and fell asleep fully clothed. There were, however, also times when Commander Yonge and Captain Litvak spent a few hours during jumps in the main briefing room. I have no idea what they discussed or why they deemed it necessary to have these conferences. Sometimes Chief Sun Lee also took part. The rest of the ship’s company took it easy on those occasions.

Petra and I still went to the small rear wardroom which was usually deserted. What did we chat about? Today I cannot quite remember. It probably was nothing of great significance. I do recall though that we dis­cussed in great detail the anticipated ten days vacation once we returned to Inverness. I also recall that we had only very few of these periods and they did not seem to last very long, at least not in subjective time. Looking back now they have taken on the quality of precious moments, of periods of enchantment and tenderness. Yes, I think I lost my heart on that ship, ASV 659.

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